Plucked From Obscurity

By Elaine Eliah

Across Lake Son-Kul, strains of the komuz one of Kyrgyzstan’s national
instruments, echo through the highlands. Melodies played on this long-necked,
three-stringed, pear-bodied instrument may not be as old as the country’s vast
Tien Shan Mountains, but they are as familiar to rural Kyrgyz as the sheep they
tend and the horses for which they are famous.

Muratbek Begaliyev grew up tending sheep in the village of Jumga. “I was
raised among musicians
,” recalls the man who is now Kyrgyzstan’s leading
classical composer. “Almost everyone could sing and play. I listened and
absorbed
.”

When Begaliyev smiles, it all sounds simple, and he certainly seems to have
absorbed music just that easily. Barely three years old when he was handed he
first komuz, he made the instrument his constant companion. Its music
entertained his first audience: the flock of sheep he tended throughout boyhood.It was a newspaper ad that alerted the young man that a music school in
Bishkek was enrolling students. At age 15, he traveled alone to the Kyrgyz
capital to audition. Soviet conservatories at that time stressed only European
classical music, which Begaliyev had never heard. “During examinations they
showed me a piano
,” he recounts. “They asked me, ‘Have you played this
instrument?’ and I said, ‘This box? I am seeing it for the first time
.’”

Despite this lack of instrumental competence, the instructors were impressed
when Begaliyev demonstrated his sophisticated compositional skill – all the more
because he work had been done “only” on a three-stringed komuz.

Even before leaving for Bishkek, even as I first read in the newspaper
that the composer faculty was open, I wanted to study composition
,”
Begaliyev explains. At Bishkek’s Institute of Arts, he became proficient on
several woodwinds, beginning with the bassoon, as well as on “this box,” the
piano. More significantly, he had become the school’s leading composer by the
time he graduated.

During graduate studies as Moscow’s Tchaikovsky State Conservatory,
Begaliyev’s Symphonic Poem Took the grand prize in the 1983 All-Union
Competition of Pianists. Inspired by 19th-century Russian painter Karl Brullov’s
Last Day of Pompeii, the Begaliyev symphony gave voice and expression to
the tragic fate of humans entangled in natural and social collapses.

A string of awards and a UNESCO grant opened doors throughout Europe, yet the
composer was caught up in the social collapse himself: the collapse of the
Soviet Union. “Too many friends in Moscow had no work,” he recalls. “Good
musicians were unemployed: There were no good orchestras, no good theaters
.”
Without any idea about what he would do next, or of how he would earn a living,
he felt drawn back to the newly independent Kyrgyz Republic.

Soviet art subsidies were a thing of the past, and Kyrgyz government funds
were severely limited, yet Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev’s donation of more than
$200,000 paid for the renovation of an old state-owned building, and the newborn
Kyrgyz Conservatory had its cradle. Twenty of Begaliyev’s unemployed musical
contemporaries eagerly joined in nurturing it. Today, the school trains hundred
of students – but what really make Begaliyev, its rector, prow is that nearly
half his students play both classical and traditional Kyrgyz music. “I want
the world to know these musicians, to know this music – Kyrgyz music
,” he
says.

Though most of the world knows little of Kyrgyz instrument, the twang of the
temir komuz, or jew’s harp, is widely familiar. Its harp- or pear-shaped iron
frame is head between the player’s teeth, and the slender tongue of springy
steel, fixed to the frame at one end, is plucked with a finger. The player must
change the shape of his mouth to isolate different harmonics from the single
note the instrument produces. The jew’s harp’s portability makes it ideal for
nomadic musicians, and Kyrgyz often carved elaborate wooden cases for theirs.
The gigatch is a similar instrument but carved from wood for a mellower sound.
Its vibrating tongue is “twanged” with an attached piece of string. A small clay
one-octave flute the Kyrgyz call a chopo choor is known in the United States as
the ocarina. Other flutes are popular throughout Kyrgyzstan.

During the Communist time, these instruments were almost forgotten,”
explained Norlan Nishanov, a teacher at the conservatory and master of several
traditional instruments. “Now the children are beginning to learn them again.”

A Begaliyev work composed especially for Kyrgyz instruments featured Nishanov
and several other conservatory musicians in a recent performance. Begaliyev
arranged traditional Central Asian music for a film made in neighboring
Kazakhstan, one of more than 30 films and 20 theatrical productions he has
scored. There’s an opera planned, based on Kyrgyz novelists Chingitay Aitmatov’s
White Cloud, about Genghis Khan, and another based Kyrgyzstan’s national
epic about its legendary hero, Manas.

So while conservatory historians pen a book about traditional folk music, and
Begaliyev pushed ahead with composing, he insists that his students routinely
perform at schools throughout the country. By encouraging today’s young people
to learn about their traditional music, he hopes to ensure that their generation
will value the culture it is heir to and that the sounds he grew up with will
always be heard by the children of Kyrgyzstan.

[From Saudi Aramco magazine, March/April 99 issue. Reproduced by courtesy of
Saudi Aramco Magazine.

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